Dear Straight Dope:
Please tell me if the book The Celestine Prophecy is fact or fiction. I really enjoyed it believing it was non-fiction. Now I'm told it is fiction. What's the dope?
Well, there’s a simple answer and a more complicated one.
The simple answer is: Yes, it’s fiction. James Redfield, the author, did not actually go through this wondrous journey.
But if that were all we had to say, this would be an awfully short answer. So I did a little more research (where research equals talking to somebody who knows a lot about this topic). I contacted Joe Szimhart, who had reviewed The Celestine Prophecy for Skeptical Inquirer magazine back in the January/February 1995 issue. According to his bio there, he is "a specialist in controversial new religions, therapies, and cults that use thought-reform techniques." In other words, he knows what he”s talking about.
According to Szimhart’s review, the original edition, before it was picked up by Warner, was classified as "New Age." The Warner edition was reclassified as fiction. Szimhart said "New Age fiction" is a good description. Further, he noted that it follows the genre of the "true story" type of occult fiction from the mid- to late-nineteenth century. This tradition can be found in the writings of many such authors, from Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the nineteenth century to Carlos Castaneda more recently.
Szimhart noted that the "Insights" found in this book are a literary device "used by writers with a deep need to get what they believe is a serious personal vision across to the public through the vehicle of a magical autobiographical experience." In other words, it’s sort of a "magical autobiography." Szimhart doesn’t even have a very high opinion of the way he did that, calling it a "didactic regurgitation of simplistic occult notions that have been expressed by more or less talented writers and by fringe groups for more than a century." Yow!
Of course, this book was only one part of Redfield’s overall New Age package. The book advertised a newsletter and an audiotape astrological reading by Redfield, who is also an aura reader. I’ve also seen a Celestine Prophecy Workbook in the stores. Now I hear you asking, if it’s fiction, why would there be a workbook? It seems this fictional book was simply a way for him to get across his New Age views, which are further built up by his readings, workbook, workshops, etc. It would be kind of like if J.R.R. Tolkien had actually believed in elves and evil wizards and had followed up his books with seminars and workbooks explaining how you can beat evil and move on to a better afterlife by following in the footsteps of Frodo. (I use this as an example only; I’m not comparing Redfield’s writing skills with Tolkien’s.)
So there you have it. The book is fictional, but meant to bolster Redfield”s own allegedly non-fiction viewpoint. Of course, I could go into how astrology, aura reading, and the like are just as fictional as this book, but Cecil has already covered astrology in one column (see http://www.straightdope.com/classics/ a3_071.html ) and discussed a bit on auras in another (see http://www.straightdope.com/classics/ a3_069.html ).
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.